Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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John Wright's Homebrew from the Hedgerow Series

My "May blossom rum" is simply hawthorn blossoms, 
covered with white rum and left in a jar for a week. 
The petals are removed and the result bottled. 
The flavour and bouquet is almost exactly that of 
May blossom itself with a surprising 
overtone of almonds.

~ John Wright

John Wright’s niche is foraged food and he has penned a number of handbooks for the British market on his expertise in the field, including The River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook, Edible Seashore, and Mushrooms. But last year, he launched a column for The Guardian that keeps me coming back again and again. In it, he covers country wines, local liqueurs, backyard apéritifs, and other hedgerow homebrews close to my heart.

Recently, he’s explored smoked vodka. Ok, maybe that’s not to everyone’s taste. But his DIY solution involving a can, some tubing, and sawdust is readily replicable and can be applied to a variety of spirits. His earlier piece on the sea buckthorn fizz made me remember that, while we don’t seem to have sea buckthorn around these parts, a store nearby carries liter cartons of the requisite juice which I nabbed within the hour.

Blackthorn leaves. Photograph: John Wright
Americans will quibble over — and flat-out disagree with — some of Wright’s pronouncements. When he writes, for instance, that white rum has “no real flavour of its own,” let’s cut the man some slack. He is a forager, after all, and not a bartender or boozer whose job it may be to identify any number of white rums in blind tastings. But his takes on orange beer, parsnip wine, rhubarb wine, chestnut liqueur, cider, blackberry whiskey, dandelion and burdock beer, and so much more have inspired me to pay closer attention to the seasons here in San Diego and what’s flowering and fruiting when in the parks nearby. Lemons, grapefruit, and rosemary are everywhere here; it's the keen eye that spots rose hips, lemonwood flowers, and feral nasturiums, just there for the taking.

From his most recent article, here’s Wright’s verbatim scaled-down version of épine, a French aperitif that’s a very close cousin to sloe gin since it uses the leaves of the blackthorn bush rather than the sloe fruits familiar to us. We are told that in France friends of his friend who supplied the recipe are ignorant of sloe gin and leave the fruits to rot on the shrubs. Sacré bleu!
Épine apéritif
2½ litres of red wine or homemade red fruit wine such as blackberry or elderberry
Half a bottle of brandy or eau-de-vie
500g sugar
About half a litre of blackthorn leaves (don't use more leaves than I recommend because blackthorn, like all the plum species, produce traces of cyanide as a byproduct of the almond flavour it imparts)
Put all the ingredients into a food quality plastic container, stir and fit the lid tightly. Leave for two weeks, stirring occasionally. Transfer to clean bottles using a funnel and some doubled-up muslin cloth to filter out the bits. As with nearly all drinks it improves with age. Santé!

Goes well with:
  • The entirety of John Wright’s Homebrew from the Hedgerow series is here.
  • Sloe what? Sloe gin? Yup. Check out what Irish poet Seamus Heaney says about it here
  • The River Cottage Preserves Handbook is a great little tome. I write about it here and include a recipe for beech leaf noyau. 
  • About those feral nasturiums. They'll be coming into seed soon enough. Here's a recipe for pickling the pods. 

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